BLUE EARTH - Kysten Zierke rushed for two touchdowns, passed for two more scores, made an interception, tipped opposing spirals away from receivers and delivered open-field tackles.
The only thing that the Blue Earth Area junior quarterback/linebacker did not do on Saturday at Wilson Field was mix the Gatorade.
Zierke completed 7 of 14 passes for a game-best 186 yards and produced a game-high 60 yards on 19 carries to power the Class AAA, No. 2-ranked Bucs to a 29-8 triumph over the defending Section 3 champion Fairmont Cardinals during sectional semifinal football action in Blue Earth.
STRETCH PLAY — Blue Earth Area safety Isaac Darrington (84) stretches out to knock away a pass intended for Fairmont split end Bryce Holm during Section 3AAA semifinal football playoff action Saturday at Wilson Field in Blue Earth. Photo by Leanna Becker
Top-seeded Blue Earth Area (9-0) will play host to No. 3-seeded Tri-City United (8-2) at 7 p.m. Friday night in the Section 3AAA championship game back at Wilson Field in Blue Earth.
Tri-City United, which is comprised of Montgomery, Lonsdale and Le Center, reached the sectional finals via a 27-17 victory over upset-minded No. 7-seeded Redwood Valley.
"The difference in today's game - they (the Bucs) didn't make any mistakes and converted all three of our turnovers into points," said Fairmont mentor Mat Mahoney, whose lineup ended its season with a 5-5 record. "I thought we matched their physicality today and played them much better than the first game, but they made more big plays than we did."
Defensive end Steve Plocker delivered the first clutch play for Blue Earth Area by pouncing on a Fairmont fumble at the Cardinals' 20-yard line during the playoff clash's opening series.
Despite a high snap over Zierke's head that resulted in a 14-yard loss on the first play, the Bucs regained the original line of scrimmage quickly as Zierke completed a 14-yard strike to split end Isaac Darrington.
Zierke lofted a spiral to the left pylon on the next play to draw a pass interference penalty on the Cardinals to place the football at the 9. Zierke bulldozed his way up the middle before cutting left to reach the end zone for a 6-0 lead with 9:29 left in the opening quarter.
Middle linebacker Carter Hanson and Blue Earth Area's sure-handed defense stymied Fairmont's ground-and-pound running game, while safety Jay Ruen and the Cardinals' shoulder pad-jarring defense did likewise in containing the Bucs' high-octane rushing attack.
Safety Dallas Barslou then delivered another pivotal play for the Blue Earth Area secondary on a fourth-and-6 play at the home team's 21. Barslou utilized his perfectly-timed, stretched-out fingertips to deflect an almost perfect pass from Fairmont quarterback Luke Hested to regain possession for Blue Earth Area with 3:29 remaining before intermission.
Linebackers Kyle Guetter and Jacob Portz answered for the Cardinal defense to force a three-and-out sequence only to watch Barslou scoop up the Fairmont punt returner's fumble at the visitors' 48 with 2:29 left in the first half.
Zierke hammered out 20 and 4 yards, respectively, to reach the 24 before the junior signal-caller lofted a high-arcing pass to the right side of the end zone.
"I thought he (Zierke) made a lot of good reads today, and our offensive line gave him time to throw, too. He also did a good job of putting his passes where only our receivers could catch them and not the defenders," said Blue Earth Area mentor Randy Kuechenmeister, whose lineup qualified for its second consecutive sectional final.
Zierke did exactly that as the 6-foot-4 Darrington utilized his incredible vertical jump to outleap a pair of Cardinal defenders to haul in the 24-yard TD.
Gus Phillips then caught Hanson's halfback option pass for two more points to extend the Bucs' edge to 14-0 with 1:05 to go in the first half.
Defensive tackle Colton Hines, linebacker Joe Weber and the Fairmont defense forced a Blue Earth Area punt during the opening series of the third quarter before watching Hested and record-setting receiver Bryce Holm worked their aerial magic.
Starting from their own 4, running back Brandon Martin plowed his way for nine yards to get the Cardinals out of the shadow of their own goal line. Three snaps later, Hested fired a 42-yard strike to Holm down the middle of the field to reach the Bucs' 38.
"We didn't know if Bryce would get it, but he and Teddy (Hested) were on the same page today," Mahoney said in reference to Holm, who became Fairmont's all-time leading receiver with 142 career catches to eclipse Adam Schultz's mark of 139. Holm also edged Schultz for the single-season reception record, 60-58.
Hested later zipped a 23-yard post pass to Holm to produce the Cardinals' only TD of the playoff game. Hested then fired a 2-point pass to Luke Becker to slice the Bucs' lead to 14-8 with 4:50 left in the third.
Tackle Greg Claeys, end Gus Phillips and the Blue Earth Area defense then pitched a shutout for the duration as Zierke engineered two more point-producing drives to put the game out of reach.
Despite a holding call negating Darrington's 79-yard TD reception from Zierke, the Bucs persevered by sticking to its air attack to put eight more points on the scoreboard. Zierke fired a perfectly-thrown spiral to the fleet-footed David Franta, who accelerated past the Cardinal secondary for a 55-yard TD catch. Zierke and Franta connected for the 2-pointer to widen the gap to 22-8 with 10:27 left in regulation.
Zierke then snagged an interception at the Fairmont 37 on the next series to help lead to seven insurance points.
Hanson later made an incredible leaping catch along the Bucs' sideline for a 24-yard gain to the 1 before Zierke pounded up the middle for the TD.
Felix Harseim kicked the PAT for a 29-8 lead with 7:48 remaining.